Robert P. Griffin Jr., the new director of Arlington County's Office of Emergency Management, will lead a staff of eight people when he begins work next month. But should disaster strike, he will instantly be able to mobilize scores of helpers.
Griffin, 38, Loudoun County's fire chief since 1997, will be at the helm of a fledgling department created to help coordinate police, firefighters and emergency medical workers and summon dozens of volunteers at a moment's notice.
As emergency workers focus their efforts at the scene of a hurricane, flood or terrorist attack, Griffin will make sure that they -- and the county's citizens -- have information and resources they need, county officials said.
Arlington County Manager Ron Carlee said he created the office in April 2003 as part of a "post-9/11 evolution." Although reports concluded that the county's response to the attack on the Pentagon was largely a success, Carlee said he wants the county to be better prepared in the future.
"We had a lot of resources out there, but it was hard to get to them," Carlee said. "They were spread in too many places to get a strong focus to do the work as fast as we wanted to accomplish it. Our challenge is not to be complacent."
The Office of Emergency Management will coordinate shelters, handle transportation needs, arrange for food and water to be brought to disaster sites and keep in close touch with other local government officials as well as state and federal agencies. The department is even prepared to dispatch volunteers to go door-to-door if there is a need to reach residents.
C. Douglas Bass, Fairfax County's emergency management coordinator, said Fairfax made a similar move recently when its Office of Emergency Management became a separate department instead of an arm of the police department. He said it makes sense to have a bird's-eye view of an unfolding disaster and to have people tasked with anticipating needs as first responders begin their work.
"We're a lot like air traffic controllers. We don't drive the fire trucks or the ambulances, but we need to make sure everybody is going in the right direction," Bass said.
Also in recent months, Mark Penn, who had worked as deputy coordinator for emergency services in Arlington, moved to Alexandria to head the city's Office of Emergency Management, which falls under the fire department.
In Arlington, the local chapter of the American Red Cross and the county's Department of Human Services, as well as the police, fire and sheriff's departments, all have representatives in the Office of Emergency Management, Carlee said.
Griffin, a certified firefighter and emergency medical technician, also will lead the county's emergency dispatchers, monitoring calls on a daily basis and watching for any unusual patterns or events.
Before coming to Virginia, Griffin, who is married with two young sons, was executive administrator in Tyngsborough, Mass., and town administrator in Townsend, Mass.
Griffin said his experiences in Loudoun have helped prepare him for his new role. He helped prepare the fast-growing county for a possible millennium computer glitch on Dec. 31, 1999, and was there when rains from Hurricane Isabel caused serious flooding.
Even before Griffin arrives in Arlington, the OEM will launch one of its most ambitious programs so far, the Arlington Prepares campaign. Sally Cooney, an American Red Cross employee, said hundreds of volunteers will fan out Saturday and distribute packets with details on practical emergency response tips.
For example, people will be encouraged to set up meeting places where family members should gather if they can't get home, Cooney said. Officials also recommend that families designate someone from outside the area as a contact person.
Cooney said the new department will help establish relationships before a disaster and avoid overlapping services. "In mass force, we're much stronger than any of us," she said.